The Rolling Stones have been picked over more than the breakfast buffet at Shoney’s. There are books by Keith, Ronnie, Bill, ex-roadies, managers, engineers, esteemed journalists, musicians, hacks, the sax player, even a former assistant affectionately named “Spanish Tony.” His entry is proudly named “I Was Keith Richards’ Drug Dealer.”
This sheer mass of material actually makes Rich Cohen’s The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones more valuable. The author isn’t shy about his reliance on previous books; he lists them all in the bibliography. But Cohen also has done his own reporting. He’s interviewed 71 people, including most of the band members.
And he understands where to make broad sweeps and where to pull back. We get the hits: Keith and Mick as kids discovering Chess vinyl, Brian Jones descending into a paranoid fog, Altamont, aging, stealing Gram Parson’s corpse. What we don’t get is stuck in minutiae. No blow-by-blow accounts of the Steel Wheels sessions.
The title of the book comes from an exchange Cohen has with Keith Richards. The guitarist asks the author when he was born. The answer: 1968.
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“What’s it like to live in a world where the Stones were always there?” Richards presses, almost incredulously. “For you, there’s always been the sun and the moon and the Rolling Stones.”
This is an important, generational entry point. The Stones are not just famous. They’re the key commodity of a market built on the idea that you can virtually stop recording and still become the centerpiece for the biggest oldies festival of all time.
Cohen approaches the Stones from two directions. He is the kid discovering the group from muffled, glorious sounds emerging from his older brother’s room in the attic. Later, he gets on the inside as a young magazine writer, backstage as he works his way into the good graces of the aging rockers. Classy Charlie Watts loves him. Steve Winwood, angered by bad reviews in Rolling Stone, attacks him. Keith, Mick and Ronnie give him time. And his access doesn’t end with the story. Cohen is enlisted to work with Jagger on the show that would eventually become the HBO series Vinyl.
You might expect an author in that position to become a bit of an apologist, and Cohen does at one point declare the Stones better than the Beatles. (What about the Kinks?) But he’s no company man. Cohen’s criticism of the band begins with the decision, 53 years ago, to boot keyboardist Ian Stewart out of the official lineup for perhaps not having the right look. This established the almost mercenary approach to all future dealings.
“They had torn open their chests and shown each other their craven hearts,” Cohen writes. “No sacrifice would be too great, no member too important.”
Elsewhere, Cohen concedes that the band hasn’t put out a great record in decades, most likely since 1978’s Some Girls. He’s tough on Jagger, whom he portrays as a sort of mystery man “still fronting the band because he came up short as a solo act.”
Never mind that Cohen, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of such books as Tough Jews, has spent 20-plus years covering an industry that often converts artistic inspiration into soybean futures. He still charmingly finds it “heartbreaking” to see that the modern Stones have become largely a business arrangement.
“In the end, there is sentiment, then there is money. In other words, when you see Mick and Keith onstage, leaning together like Butch and Sundance, you’re seeing actors.”
To be clear, The Sun is not a downer. The book follows a narrative line, charting the birth and growth of the Stones. We travel with Cohen to many of the locations important to the band’s history and visit with the tragic, former Mick-flame Marianne Faithfull. You will, as with the best music bios, want to follow along on vinyl or Spotify. Cohen also has a strong sense of how to softly frame the larger story within his personal history.
There is a beauty to the Stones mythologies. Several times, Cohen offers variations of the same tale without settling on the truth because truth is beside the point when a story has been passed around for decades.
There is a greater context here and a different way to view our musical icons: that as famous and seemingly untouchable as they may be, they’re really just a group of guys who got lucky. At one point, Cohen witnesses a man pressing Jagger about his fjord-deep wrinkles.
“Laugh lines,” Jagger says.
“Nothing’s ever been that funny,” the man fires back.
“But the guy was wrong,” writes Cohen. “There has been something that funny, mainly, the joke that this generation of rock stars played on fate, which had them marked for lives of quiet desperation in factories and insurance firms but instead set them up like medieval princes in frock coats and buckles — a life that for centuries had been the sole entitlement of the debauched nobility.”
In that context, the business arrangement, though lacking in romance, is almost palatable. You realize we should actually feel grateful that there’s still room to feel a nostalgic twinge when you hear the cowbell opening of Honky Tonk Woman or the shouts at the end of Brown Sugar. This oldies act, as Cohen writes, can still offer a “glimpse of what they had been.”
Geoff Edgers reviewed this book for The Washington Post.